It depends on the fifth-wheel and how the truck is equipped
So-called half-ton-towable fifth-wheels are becoming increasingly popular for a variety of reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that a half-ton (150 or 1500 series) pickup is less expensive than a comparably equipped HD truck and consumes less fuel. A lighter duty truck is also smaller and usually rides better as well, which becomes important when driving solo. And while a lot of folks like the towing stability a fifth-wheel provides, they don’t necessarily want a big trailer, so a bigger truck just doesn’t make sense.
But is this new breed of lightweight fifth-wheel really towable by half-ton trucks? We’ve had quite a few of our readers debate that point in recent months, and a few have felt that we are helping to perpetuate the half-ton fifth-wheel myth. Their concern is that, while a 150/1500-series truck may be capable of pulling a 9,000- to 10,000-pound fifth-wheel, the truck’s payload, or more importantly, the gross axle weight rating (gawr) and/or gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) could be violated by the trailer’s pin weight, which is typically 15 to 20 percent of the total weight.
It’s a good point, though not necessarily a valid one. Trailer weights and truck capabilities don’t live in a world of black and white, and there are always a number of variables to consider. For example, while light-duty trucks may be lumped into the same class, their capabilities vary widely, depending on how they are configured and equipped. To wit, gvwr in this category can range from 6,300 pounds all the way up to 8,200 pounds when a heavy-duty payload or towing package is specified.
Then there’s the matter of intended use. The Grand Design 27RL tested in this issue had a wet weight of 8,780 pounds but a gvwr of 9,995 pounds. Is it likely that the average user is going to pack more than 1,000 pounds of belongings in a fifth-wheel that isn’t designed for full-time use? Not very.
Is the average RVer going to fill the freshwater tank when they’re going to stay at an RV park with full hookups? Probably not.
And what about payload? Remember, payload is the total weight of all supplies, passengers and hitch weight allowed in the tow vehicle before exceeding the gvwr. So, will the truck be carrying two people averaging 150 pounds each (the federal standard for payload capacity), or a family of four averaging 200 pounds each?
Even if you crunch the numbers, there’s no way of knowing for sure that you’re not facing an overload situation, unless you weigh your truck-and-trailer combination — and this is particularly true if you plan to tow a fifth-wheel with a half-ton pickup.
For example, when we ordered the Grand Design 27RL for our test, we paired it with what was the most robust half-ton tow vehicle in GM’s media fleet, a 2014 Chevy Silverado High Country with a brutish 6.2-liter, 420-horsepower V-8 and a 9,500-pound tow rating. It seemed like this truck would be OK if the trailer wasn’t loaded to capacity, and the truck’s gvwr of 7,200 pounds and 1,957-pound payload suggested that we had a suitable match on our hands. However, when the trailer was filled with water and propane but no supplies, it weighed 8,780 pounds and had a pin weight of 1,640 pounds — leaving us with only 317 pounds of payload capacity — without passengers in the truck. So we traveled with no water in the tank, packed lightly and squeaked by for this test.
“Aha!” our detractors exclaim. “So you’re admitting that the trailer isn’t towable by a half-ton!” Not so fast. Note that the test vehicle was the best truck in GM’s media fleet but not the highest capacity half-ton it builds. That honor goes to the Double Cab standard-box 4WD with a 5.3-liter V-8 and Max Trailering Package, which has a maximum payload of 2,270 pounds, but more importantly, a gvwr of 7,600 pounds and a rear gawr of 4,300 pounds.
We wanted to get hold of this particular truck and weigh it to find out how much weight it carried over the rear wheels, and therefore how much capacity was left over, but this exact model was not available. So, we turned to our friends at Paradise Chevrolet in Ventura, California, to help us find the next best thing: that same model but without the Max Trailering Package. Running it across the scales, the truck weighed 5,500 pounds with a full gas tank, and the weight on the rear axle was 2,200 pounds. After making the assumption that the truck will transport two people at 150 pounds each, the realistic payload was reduced from 1,676 pounds (the figure on the data tag in the doorjamb) to 1,300. Using this scenario and subtracting the actual weight on the rear axle from its 3,950-pound gawr and estimating that 100 pounds of passenger weight will end up on the rear axle, we calculated that the rear axle could handle 1,650 pounds before exceeding capacity. Based on that number alone, it would look like the truck can just handle the 1,640-pound hitch weight for our example above.
But wait. You can’t put 1,640 pounds on the rear axle without exceeding the gvwr. As determined above, the effective hitch weight that can be carried by this truck is limited to 1,300 pounds, after accounting for the realistic payload, without putting anything else in the bed, including the hitch. Therefore, hitch weight here is limited by gvwr.
The same truck with the 7,600-pound gvwr and 4,300-pound gawr — assuming that the truck will not weigh that much more — will be able to handle a hitch weight of approximately 1,800 pounds, using the same formula as above. How did we get there? We subtracted the actual weight of the truck (5,500 pounds) from the gvwr (7,600 pounds) and ended up with 2,100 pounds. From here we accounted for 300 pounds’ worth of passengers and ended up with 1,800 pounds. Again, while the rear axle can actually handle around 2,000 pounds, the realistic capacity is limited by gvwr. Nevertheless, even though the actual weight of the truck with the 7,600-pound gvwr will likely be a little higher, this truck can get by with limited loading.
Better yet, a 2014 Ford F-150 regular cab 2WD longbed with the heavy-duty payload package and EcoBoost engine has 3,100 pounds of payload capacity and a gvwr of 8,200 pounds, and the 2015 F-150, with its new aluminum body, can tow up to 12,200 pounds and has a payload of up to 3,300 pounds.
While the Ram touts superior towing muscle for its heavy-duty pickups, the numbers for its 1500-series models are actually on the weak side. Fifth-wheel towing is possible, but owners will have to equip their Ram 1500s carefully and likely have to look at shorter, lighter fifth-wheels.
As with any truck-and-trailer combination, doing your homework and choosing the right combination is important to safe towing. If you don’t exceed the gvwr, gawr, gross combined weight rating (gcwr) or tire capacity of the tow vehicle, you can successfully tow a fifth-wheel with a half-ton pickup. But one final note: Dial in a margin of safety because you’re likely to be heavier than you think.
A frequent contributor to Trailer Life, Chris Hemer is the former technical editor of Trailer Life and MotorHome, and has been an RV and automotive journalist for more than 20 years. An outdoor enthusiast who now makes his home in Portland, Oregon, he enjoys camping, motorcycle riding, mountain biking and hiking.